Rag & Bone’s Wainwright and Neville Say Focus First

Marcus Wainwright and David Neville of Rag & Bone | Source: Rag & Bone

On the eve of their first ever presentation at London Fashion Week, to be held at their new Sloane Square flagship, BoF spoke with David Neville and Marcus Wainwright, the duo behind one of New York’s most exciting emerging labels, Rag & Bone.

NEW YORK, United States — “The secret to our success is the way we balance art and commerce,” said Marcus Wainwright, who, along with business partner and fellow English transplant David Neville, founded Rag & Bone — named after 19th century scavengers who collected unwanted rags, bones, metal and other scraps — in New York City in 2002. “At the end of the day, we sell clothes. For anyone who wants to start a brand, I say don’t bother unless you want to make clothes that people want to buy.”

And buy they do.

Today, Rag & Bone’s cool, but accessible clothing, blending American workwear and British tailoring with the unfussy look of downtown New York, is stocked in hundreds of stores across the globe and the company’s global revenues for 2012 are expected to reach $125 million, according to market sources.

In recent seasons, the brand has rapidly expanded its retail presence and now operates six stores in New York alone, as well as stores in Boston and Washington DC, and a store in Tokyo. In July, the company opened its first European flagship in London’s Sloane Square, where, tomorrow, it will stage its first ever London Fashion Week presentation, only days after Rag & Bone’s New York runway show and a dinner, co-hosted by Linda Evangelista and Barneys New York, to celebrate the launch of the brand’s first handbag, the Pilot.

Success did not come overnight, however. “It took a long time for us to get traction,” said Wainwright. But looking back, it’s clear that the duo made a number of important decisions that laid the foundations for their ascendance.

Perhaps their most important manoeuvre was the focus Wainwright and Neville brought to the business in its early stages. When they first launched Rag & Bone, the designers tightly focused their energies on perfecting one product. “It was [born] as an idea to try and work out how to make a specific piece of clothing that we couldn’t find in the market, which was a great pair of dark men’s jeans,” said Wainwright. “We couldn’t find it, so we made it,” he continues. “We wanted to make the best pair of jeans.”

The first season was tough. Rag & Bone only sold 50 pairs of jeans to three stores. And after a few failed attempts in getting samples made in New York and a “disastrous” experience ordering 300 pairs of jeans from a Hong Kong manufacturer that arrived in poor condition, Wainwright found a factory in Kentucky that specialised in American workwear. The very next day, he took a flight to Tennessee, drove to Kentucky and met with the factory’s management. They were not only willing to do a small production run, but really valued “quality, craftsmanship and authenticity,” said Wainwright.

Based on this small but focused foundation, Wainwright and Neville began to incrementally broaden their product offering. The following season they added T-shirts, jackets and button-down shirts, earning attention from edgy stores like New York’s Opening Ceremony. By 2004, the duo had built a full menswear line. And, in 2005, Rag & Bone launched its first womenswear collection, followed by footwear, in 2009, and a line of accessibly priced denim and casual wear, in 2010, the same year the designers beat out fashion legend Tom Ford to win the prestigious CFDA/Swarovski Award for Emerging Menswear Talent.

But as they steadily expanded into new product categories, Wainwright and Neville were careful to strike the right balance between desirability and accessibility, offering items at both high and low price points. “We make clothes that people can afford and clothes that the market has an appetite for,” said Wainwright. “You can buy the very aspirational stuff, like $3000 shearling coats, or you can buy everyday items like T-shirts and jeans. There’s a little bit of everything for everyone.”

Neither Wainwright nor Neville, who first met 20 years ago at boarding school in Berkshire, England (where they were required to wear tailored uniforms) had any formal design training before launching Rag & Bone. Wainwright started a telecom company, while Neville worked in investment banking. But critically, over the years, the duo have consulted and learned from some of the fashion industry’s most experienced veterans, including Mark Lee, CEO of Barneys New York, who recently convinced the designers, over lunch, to launch a handbag.

“I yammered and hammered for an hour,” said Lee, a former CEO of Gucci, who clearly understands the commercial power of handbags, at the dinner, held a few days ago, to celebrate the bag’s launch. But true to form, Wainwright and Neville, rather than create a whole line of bags, are sticking to one style, at least for now. “It’s a much more focused approach,” said Wainwright.

Importantly, the duo also sought advice and support from Andrew Rosen, third generation garmento, CEO of Theory and investor in a number of exciting emerging New York labels, who, in 2006, guaranteed a bank loan for Rag & Bone in order to help fuel the brand’s expansion and now holds a 30 percent stake in the business. “Andrew is our fashion godfather and the ultimate partner,” says Neville. “He told us to focus our efforts in America, particularly in New York. He said if we couldn’t do business in New York, we may as well pack up and go home.”

Following Rosen’s advice, Rag & Bone first focused their retail expansion squarely on New York, before moving into other markets. “Our identity and aesthetic is very much tied to our stores,” said Wainwright. “As Rag & Bone is essentially a New York brand, it made sense to us to establish ourselves fully in the city.” Of course, operating their own stores also meant better margins and gave the duo immediate access to important feedback from customers.

Now, having tested and perfected their retail concept in New York City, one of the world’s most competitive fashion markets, Rag & Bone are firmly positioned to replicate their success in other cities across the US, Europe and Asia. Indeed, earlier this month, the designers opened a new flagship store in Seoul, Korea, their second in Asia, while another flagship is set to open on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, their biggest market outside New York, later this autumn.

As that famous line about New York sung by Frank Sinatra says, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.

Robert Cordero is a contributing editor at The Business of Fashion.